OYSTERMAN AT HELM

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story by TREY ILES

That Patrick Banks ended up working for a state wildlife and fisheries agency would come as no surprise to the people in his hometown of Glennville, Ga., located in the southeast part of the state. Like most everyone else in the inland rural southern town, Banks embraced hunting and fishing.

But Banks defied convention when he arrived at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He quickly worked his way up the ranks not in wildlife or inland fisheries but in the oyster management program. He eventually ascended to head of Marine Fisheries for LDWF about a year ago.

“I grew up hunting and fishing in Georgia,’’ said Banks, now the Assistant Secretary for Fisheries at LDWF. “I was an avid bass and bream fisherman growing up. I fished a little bit along the coast but not extensively. Pond fishing and certainly deer and dove hunting were my primary outdoor interests growing up, along with sports.’’

It took moving to Louisiana for Banks, who did his graduate work at LSU, to develop a love for oysters. As most natives of the Bayou State already know, falling for the Louisiana version of the briny bivalve is an easy push.

“There is nothing like eating a good, salty, plump Louisiana oyster,’’ Banks said. “I’ve eaten oysters from all over the country and a couple from outside the country. There is just nothing like Louisiana oysters. Lots of folks will call me biased and that’s fine, but there is nothing that matches what we have.’’

Banks did his biological sciences graduate work on oysters at LSU beginning in 1997. In 2001, he joined LDWF, which was looking for an oyster biologist. In 2004, he became the oyster program manager.

“I was involved in every aspect of the oyster management program,’’ Banks said. “I was responsible for management of all public oyster reefs in the state. I was involved in the statewide oyster task force. I would meet with oystermen, and was involved in commenting on oyster legislation. I was also heavily involved in reef building projects on the public oyster grounds, sampling of those reefs, and performing stock assessments of those reefs. If it had to do with oysters, I was involved with it for a lot of years.’’

His expertise in the field led to his promotion to LDWF Marine Fisheries Director, a job he said he was perfectly happy to keep.

But when new LDWF Secretary Charlie Melancon sought an Assistant Secretary for Fisheries in February of this year, Banks was the ideal choice, he said.

“Patrick has that rare balance of being an expert in his field and the ability to effectively communicate goals and vision to those who work for him,’’ Melancon said. “His dedication to the agency is clearly seen in his work with the oyster program and as head of Marine Fisheries.’’

Banks said the workforce at LDWF is second to none in Louisiana state government. That’s because of the love that biologists in the department have for their jobs.

“We have a vested interest in this kind of work,’’ Banks said. “It makes working here wonderful and rewarding. I’m not so sure that folks outside of this agency understand that. They see us as just another state employee. It’s so much different in an agency like this because we love the work, we love the agency and we’re committed to the mission.’’

After seven months on the job, Banks said he is developing a vision of where he’d like to guide fisheries. Topping his list is concentrating more heavily on the core management of fisheries resources in Louisiana.

“I want to make sure our core mission, management and conservation of our state’s fisheries resources, is as fully supported as it can be,’’ Banks said. “In recent years, we have concentrated our efforts more toward promotion and outreach, which certainly can be important at times. However, we need to return our focus to fully supporting the management and conservation aspect of our mission.

“What I’ve told staff is that I prefer substance over shiny. We will work to provide substantive fisheries management results and not just flashy headlines. I’d like to spend more of my efforts and our attention on core fisheries management. The promotion aspect of our work will take care of itself when the public enjoys the well-managed resources.’’

Banks said it also will be vital to develop younger biologist in fisheries. He said he worries that talent has not been trained as well as it should have been the past few years for higher-level positions. Biologists are trained very well in biological and management tasks. However, Banks is concerned that the leadership, supervisory and administrative training opportunities for staff who show interest in those roles is lacking.

“Unfortunately, we have a bench that has not been developed as well as I would have hoped,’’ Banks said. “I want to concentrate some efforts on developing that younger staff, developing their interests. We need to find who is interested in certain types of jobs so that we can understand who may eventually move up when we’re gone. It is very important to train the future leaders within the agency while also recruiting high-quality biologists from outside the walls.’’

After six months on the job, Banks said he’s still learning about areas of fisheries in which he was not directly involved before taking the Assistant Secretary position, particularly on the inland side. He said he finds that invigorating.

“I absolutely have some learning to do,’’ Banks said. “That’s probably the most interesting part of the job in my first six months, learning about the fresh water side of fisheries, interacting with the freshwater fisheries biologists. They do extremely interesting work and it’s a world that I hadn’t been a part of for 15 years.’’

One of the pressing issues for inland fisheries is aquatic plant control, Banks said. Giant salvinia continues to choke many fresh water lakes in Louisiana and it’s a predicament that is on the front burner at LDWF.

One of the tools to combat the problem is lake drawdowns, Banks said. He understands those drawdowns aren’t always necessarily popular with the public as they can temporarily restrict public access to the waterbody.

“I’m learning a lot about the value of drawdowns and how critical they are to aquatic plant control and how that can greatly help boost fisheries production in a lake,’’ Banks said. “We’re doing a lot of drawdowns on lakes. The public doesn’t always support our recommendation for a drawdown. But I hope the public will give us an opportunity to show them the value of this management tool.’’

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